Queer Street and the Occasional Poet

Keith HaringThe auditorium is nearly full on a Friday afternoon as University of Amsterdam Pride kicks off its 2013 lecture series. The topic is the “unassuming word” queer, and its various conceptualizations and criticisms. It’s a long time since I was a student, and I’m unfamiliar with the latest academic jargon. I hope hegemony doesn’t pop up. I can never remember what that means. Likewise efficacy, post-structuralist and heteronormative. Almost immediately I’m in trouble.

As associate professor of Comparative Literature Murat Aydemir begins his talk, I feel myself sink beneath “another discursive horizon” (de Laurentis, 1991). I’m sitting too far from the exit to slink out unnoticed but I remember how to take notes, even if I don’t know what they mean. I smile and relax when the professor gets lost in one of his own sentences, and suddenly the fog begins to lift. I’m actually following the discussion.

“It’s lucky for you, my man, that nothing is missing, or you would find yourself in Queer Street.” – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1904)Return of Sherlock Holmes

Queer had already become a derogatory term for effeminate men in the late 19th century, but Conan Doyle wasn’t using it in that sense (despite recurring debate about the relationship between Holmes and Dr. Watson.) I didn’t know much about Queer Theory when it emerged in the early 90s until I interviewed New Queer Cinema directors like Derek Jarman, Todd Haynes and Greg Araki. I liked their films. I liked the re/appropriation of the word queer.

Some of the gay community thought it was too in-your-face. Some academics abandoned it for becoming too mainstream. But queer was here and it wasn’t going away. LGBT morphed into LGBTQ into LGBTQI into LGBTQQIAA. (Little did I know, the day before the lecture a New York Times article in the Fashion & Style section discussed the issue at length.)

Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Questioning Intersex Asexual Ally.

Spell it all out and it’s almost poetic. Cuban-American gay poet Richard Blanco puts it all in a different perspective with his poem Queer Theory, According to My Grandmother. Blanco made headlines last week with the announcement that President Obama had selected him to write and read a poem for the inauguration ceremony. The literary term for work specifically written to celebrate an event is “occasional poetry.” Although it’s a tradition that dates back to ancient Greek culture, somehow it sounds too offhand, too academic for this instance.

Richard Blanco & JoeyBlanco is the first Latino poet, the first gay poet, not to mention the youngest poet ever chosen for the honor. He lives with his partner and dog in a small town in Maine. He studied civil engineering and has designed bridges, a talent that may be just what he needs to follow in the footsteps of other inaugural poets like Robert Frost and Maya Angelou.

“The challenge,” he says, “is how to be me in the poem, to have a voice that’s still intimate but yet can encompass a multitude of what America is.” Sound a little like something Walt Whitman might have said? It’ll be interesting to hear him put a voice to the inaugural theme Our People, Our Future. It’s highly unlikely he’ll use the occasion to address specific issues that concern the LGBTQQIAA community, but I’m betting he’s clever enough to make some significant inroads without ending up in Queer Street.

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